RockyMountainNavy, 11 October 2023
Wargame publisher Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) markets the folio-packed wargame Goose Green (Designer Carl Fung, based on a series design by Dean Essig, 2023) as the latest game (#18) in the Tactical COMBAT Series (TCS). As you likely can discern from my article title, TCS in my mind is better described as the Tactical COMMAND Series because the true heart of the game model is not combat, but command.
One common criticism of many (nearly all?) wargames is that the players have too much knowledge and control. Be it the “God’s Eye” view of the battlefield to (nearly) perfect knowledge of enemy forces and capabilities—i.e. little real Fog of War1—to units that react and adjust to enemy actions with no hesitation (no Friction of War), most wargames are flawed depictions of command in war. Some wargames attempt to introduce Fog or Friction, be it units where the combat ratings are unknown until engaged or through the use of cards or chit-draw orders to randomize actions. Very few wargames come anything close to allowing the player to operate under conditions approximating planning and command & control constraints on a battlefield.
The Tactical Combat Series from MMP tries to approximate those missing conditions by using a game model focused on planning and commanding forces. The series rule book dedicates an entire section of rules to planning and command and control; indeed, a full one-fifth of the 32-page series rules are for just section 6.0 Command.
Command and (you) Control
The command rules in TCS are so foundational to the game design I can’t believe that MMP could ever be dismissive of them…yet they are:
“6.1 Playing Without Command. You can easily skip play without the formal command system. Skip all the rules in section 6. Players can choose between realism and simplicity for their tastes. The game design works with or without the Command Rules, although the Command Rules are one of the main driving elements of TCS games.”TCS Series Rule 6.1
It’s a shame the Command Rules open with that dismissive passage because if players use the full command rules they will find a game that is challenging—and very rewarding—without an overwhelming amount of rules overhead. The key to the Command Rules in TCS is the use of Op Sheets. I fear that when new players first encounter the Command Rules for TCS many are put off by Ops Sheets in part because of what they think they are, rather than an understanding of what they really represent. As the intro to rule 6.0 Command states:
“Create Op Sheets to define your objectives. The units on an Op Sheet must execute the mission on that sheet until they accomplish the mission, they are reassigned, or the player cancels the Op Sheet.” TCS Series Rule 6.0
I often hear the term “plotted movement” used to describe the command rules in TCS. Although imperfect, the definition of “Action/Movement Programming” used by BoardGameGeek (BGG) describes what many very likely understand plotted movement to be:
“Players secretly choose the next X turns, and then each player plays their turns out according to the choices made. A game has the programming mechanic if it provides choice of several actions with a mechanism of executing those actions such that things could go spectacularly or amusingly wrong, because the status of the game changed in ways one did not anticipate before the action is executed.” BGG Mechanisms
In it’s own clunky language (though not as cumbersome as what BGG writes above) the series rules for TCS explain that the rules for command are more akin to broad guidelines than specific directions:
“6.2 Unit Actions Unaffected by Command: Op Sheets show the functions of higher level formations…Much of what unit counters do while part of a higher plan need not be controlled by Op Sheets. These actions include, but are not limited to, fire combats, exact unit movements, Assault and Overrun combats, Minefield operations, and artillery fires. Play proceeds along Op Sheet frameworks, but Op Sheets do not control precise unit actions, unlike games featuring plotted movement.” TCS Series Rule 6.2
Buried deep in the TCS command rules is a passage that MMP could better emphasize as it reinforces what Op Sheet are—and aren’t:
“6.10b Players are free to use their units as they see fit in following Op Sheet instructions, but they must follow those instructions. They are free to vary their operational tempo for any reason, provided they do not violate Op Sheet instructions.” TCS Series Rule 6.10b
The Multi-Man Publishing website has an entire section of archives dedicated to TCS and within that archive are a few gem articles that more fully explain the game system. As Lee Forester writes in “Ops Article on TCS Op Sheets:”
“From this we see that Op Sheets have two purposes: to restrict the flexibility of a player’s forces (due to realistic command problems), and to require players to use ‘operations’ with missions and objectives as their main method of play. Players should A) assign objectives to their units, and B) attempt to accomplish these objectives. Op Sheets are designed to encourage players to plan what they are doing, and then execute the missions they plot, until the mission is accomplished or the player cancels the mission. This is in contrast to most other wargames, where players can ‘wing it’ by responding instantly to new situations with full control over their units’ actions.”
You Gotta Be Sh-eet-ing Me
In exploring the Command Rules for TCS I discovered that the game mechanisms indeed focus not on plotting individual unit actions but instead focus on a plan. The plan of battle for each player is shown on an Op Sheet. To better learn—and understand—the command rules for TCS I played through scenario “5.2 Burntside House and Low Pass” found on page 8 of the Goose Green game rule book. Scenario 5.2 is a short five-turn scenario which pits a British battalion of paratroops attacking against a defending Argentinian infantry company with support weapons. The scenario set up rules specify:
- [British] Orders: Implemented Op Sheet (Attack). Draw up before the Argentinian player sets up.
- [Argentinian] Orders: All units begin on a single implemented Prepared Defense Op Sheet.
Series rule 6.6 Op Sheet Types defines four different Op Sheets. Of relevance to this scenario:
- 6.6a Prepared Defense: Defense of an area that allows the troops to dig in and may include the laying of minefields.
- 6.6b Attack: Offensive operations towards an objective not currently held—even to occupy terrain not garrisoned by the enemy.
In practical game actions the British player must plan their attack—before they see the Argentinian set up—on an Op Sheet that starts the game in use (Implemented).
Likewise, the Argentinian player has to execute a defensive scheme as depicted on their Implemented Op Sheet with the barest of intel ahead of time. Both sides will use their Implemented Op Sheet until 1) the plan is successfully completed, or 2) the players recognize the plan has failed, or 3) the players try to implement a new plan.
While both sides hope that their plan will work, each Op Sheet also has Failure Instructions (series rule 6.11b) and Rally Points (series rule 6.12) used by Unassigned units to gather in order to reorganize. Op Sheets can also have Preliminary Instructions (series rule 6.14a) most often used to move units to assembly areas to jump off for a mission. Some units may be designated as Reserves which can be held to respond to a changing situation—but not a new mission (see series rule 6.14b Reserves).
Both players are allowed to draw up a second unimplemented Op Sheet (like maybe an Argentinian Attack Op Sheet to mount a counterattack if the conditions are right, or a British Hasty Defense Op Sheet if the Paras get bogged down). No more than two Op Sheets can be in play for a given player (see series rule 6.7c Limitation on Op Sheet Assignments).
Prep and Weight
An Implemented Op Sheet means the orders are in execution (units are “Assigned” in TCS parlance). But what if your attack fails? How do you switch to defense? Or change your axis of advance? Do you have a contingency plan? TCS series rules 6.8 Op Sheet Creation and 6.9 Command Prep provide rules for creating new Op Sheets and the time needed to put the orders into effect (Command Prep). The Command Prep rules are perhaps the most irksome to play with not because they are difficult to understand or manipulate but because they are the most realistic at giving players a dreaded sense of time which is never enough because, well, you know…
Before an Op Sheet can be implemented, there must be some amount of prep time. This passage of time, noted through the tracking of weighted turns (series rule 6.9d), reflects not only the time needed to create and pass orders, but also time needed to coordinate various staff elements or with adjacent units or the like. Series rule 6.9d specifies that weighted turns accumulate at a rate of the lowest of the below conditions:
- 3 if the unit is Unassigned (not on any Implemented Op Sheet)
- 2 if assigned (on an Implemented Op Sheet) or at night
- 1 if fired or fired upon in any way
- x3 for Vehicle Op Sheets (6.9e)
When a player wants to implement a new Op Sheet one must cross-reference the number of weighted turns with the unit Command Prep rating to determine the odds of successfully implementing the new Op Sheet. In scenario 5.2, the British start the game with a Command Prep rating of ‘3’ thanks to the presence of Lt Col ‘H” Jones (see game rule 1.3a). The Argentinians start the scenario with a Command Prep rating of ‘6’ (see game rule 1.3b). The practical impact of the rate of weighted turns accumulating and different Command Prep ratings is that the British are likely to be faster to implement a new Op Sheet than the Argentinians.
Burnt out at Burntside
For example, at Burntside House Lt. Col “H” is pretty confident of success in the attack but is very concerned that BBC reports alerted the Argentinian defenders to his coming attack. Although cognizant of the political need for a speedy advance, the Lt Col also knows that caution is sometimes the better part of valor and as the attack kicks off he has a second Hasty Defense plan in his back pocket. This unimplemented Op Sheet accumulates two (2) weighted turns on Turn 1 of the scenario. In the Command Phase of Turn 2, the British accumulate only a single weighted turn as the unit engaged in combat. Suppose the same happens on Turn 3 (+1 weighted turn for a total of 4 weighted turns), but on Turn 4 (+1 weighted turn) the plan goes all sideways. Facing being overrun by the Argentinians, on Turn 5 Lt Col “H” desires to switch to that Hasty Defense scheme. After adding another single weighted turn (6 total) the British player makes an Implementation check to see if the Hasty Defense Op Sheet is Implemented. Looking at the Command Prep Table on page 1 of the player aid and cross-referencing a Command Prep + Op Sheet size rating of 3 (Lt Col “H: Command Prep) plus zero (0) for the Op Sheet size (series rule 6.9b Op Sheet Size and 6.9c Staff Modifier) with the “6” weighted turn column against the row for Hasty Defense the result is 55. This means the Implementation check will only be successful if 55 or higher is rolled on d66 (a 2 in 9 chance). If the check is successful the British switch to that Hasty Defense…
…against an Argentinian counterattack? Task Force Mercedes starts off using a Prepared Defense Op Sheet but with great confidence draws up plans for a counterattack on an unimplemented Attack Op Sheet. On Turn 1 they accumulate 2 weighted turns and gain a single weighted turn on Turns 2, 3, 4, and 5 (6 total) due to combat. On Turn 5 the Argentinian player wants to go on the offensive. The Argentinian Command Prep rating is 6 plus zero for Op Sheet size. This is cross-referenced with the “6” column (for six weighted turns) on the Attack row of the Command Prep Table for a result of 65. The Argentinian player must roll a 65 or 66 on d66 (a 1 in 18 chance) to Implement the Attack Op Sheet. Good luck with that!
One in a Hundred Days of Operations
For as much as I studied the Falklands War, I actually have few books on the land warfare portion of the battle. Over the years I tended to focus almost exclusively on the naval and air aspects of the conflict. Even the sources I read heavily downplay Goose Green. Admiral Sandy Woodward in his book One Hundred Days2 devotes an entire four (4!) sentences to Goose Green:
“We in turn hit them with a diversionary cover of over sixteen tons of shells from five ships while the Paras took Goose Green. This was of course an amazing battle in which the troops in red berets ran into a surprisingly strong Arg defense, possibly as a result of the BBC World Service announcement that ‘the Paras are moving towards Darwin’. At least the soldiers thought so. I doubt if the Parachute Regiment will ever entirely forgive the BBC.” (Woodward 302)
Gordon Smith’s book Battles of the Falklands War 3 devotes just over a page of text and provides a map overview of the Battle for Goose Green that looks very much like a TCS Op Sheet. That said, the narrative provided is just that, a narrative of the battle as it unfolded and not an explanation of the planning or tactics used or how the plan was adjusted once the shooting started.
Recalling again the archives article by Lee Forester, players will almost certainly find their play of TCS more enjoyable if they remember a few pointers and think operations over tactics:
“Embrace the Idea of Operations. To write good opsheets, you need to embrace this philosophy rather than resist it. Since familiarity with other games leads players to expect full control of their units, the use of Op Sheets will often be very uncomfortable at first, even grating. But by the same token, if you master the formulation and mechanics of Op Sheets, you will gain a big advantage over your opponent. THINK about your plans. As in chess, try to see as far ahead as you can. As in actual military operations, it is often best to come up with a unified plan and stick to it, rather than responding piecemeal to what your opponent is doing. By thinking things through, you will be able to read the battle better than your opponent, giving you a decisive edge.”
“You should plan your initial Op Sheets especially carefully. If you know your intent, it will be easier to stick to it and you won’t be tempted to slop it. Initial plans for the various TCS games can be drawn up during leisure moments so that when you get together to play, you can set-up and have at it without spending a lot of time writing up the Op Sheets.”
“The plan of battle fixes for each Division where, when, and how it is to fight—that is, it fixes the time, place, and form of the combat.”
Carl von Clausewitz
If there is something missing in the TCS Command Rules it is perhaps a short discussion of the military standard Five Paragraph Order. After playing Goose Green the first time I reviewed the military Five Paragraph Order (Situation-Mission-Execution-Admin-Command) and really wish the TCS Op Sheets were arranged in a similar manner. With a close study (and a bit of some intellectual squinting) one can find all the right places to put the elements of the Five Paragraph Order on an Op Sheet but it would be so much nicer if it was straight-up there rather than implied.
The Tactical COMMAND System used in the Goose Green wargame forces players to not only plan their battle, but then to execute and adjust that plan once in contact with the enemy. The plan, shown on an Op Sheet, is the broad guidelines of how the player has directed their forces to operate. TCS is not a wargame with a straitjacket-like plotting game mechanism but rather a very “thinky” version of command and control with a relatively low rules overhead that creates decision challenges for players before—and during—a game.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, paraphrased by too many others
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In gaming halls where grognards debate,
They argue about what’s deemed first-rate.
“True wargame!” they declare,
With a passionate glare,
Their opinions, they’ll never abate.
Some seek hexes and counters galore,
Claiming purism, nothing they’ll ignore.
Yet the heart of the matter,
Is the fun we all gather,
So let’s play and enjoy, let’s explore!
- ed note: we’ve talked about fog of war before!
- (Woodward, S., & Robinson, P. (1992). One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander. Naval Institute Press.)
- (Smith, G. (1989). Battles of the Falklands War. Ian Allan Ltd.)